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Residential Swings

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Photo credit: Derek Bruff

I have a love-hate relationship with playground swings.

More hate than love these days, since the unreasonable swing manufacturers refuse to make swings properly. Back when I was ten, they made the swings so much larger; a perfect fit with no pinched thighs…

The part of the arc that sails me up to the sky makes my heart soar. I defy gravity. I fly like a bird. I touch the clouds. I…

drop like a rock back to earth.

As everything below rushes up to meet me, as my stomach drops away, I grit my teeth and brace for impact.

Every time.

Because once, on a cheap plastic yellow swing with a rusted chain, it happened.

Just as I realized my pinky had caught in a chain link, I fell. I don’t remember whether the seat cracked or the chain snapped, but I ended up on the ground with no nail on my pinky.

It never stopped me from swinging, but I can never fully enjoy the high of grinning madly while the wind tousles my hair.

I’m always waiting for the drop.

Having a child in residential care is a bit like taking a ride on a playground swing.

Highs, lows, devastation and recovery.

We get back on the swing, each ride a little more careful than the last.

Progress warrants rejoicing, but experience requires caution. One weak link breaks the chain.

Today, we celebrated. Our son had overall success this week, which meant he earned a 6-hour on-grounds pass.

For those of you not familiar: in most residential facilities, family may visit or come to the center to participate in family counseling as much as they like, but the child may not leave the grounds or have special privileges. In our case, the child earns passes by 2-hour increments on-grounds. Passes gradually step up to off-grounds (staying in the general area) and build up to a pass to go home. Once a child meets qualifications for 48- and 72-hour passes home, discharge from the therapy center is on the horizon. 

Before Christmas, our son earned his way to an 8-hour off-grounds pass and we expected him to have a 24- or 48-hour pass by Christmas. He regressed, once again becoming violent and suicidal. The passes were revoked for his own safety (and that of individuals around him).

His recovery from this phase has been slow; once he managed to curb the violent outbursts, he channeled his energy into testing limits. Because of his specific attachment issues, we worked with his therapist closely and kept visits to a minimum if he didn’t participate fully in his therapy plan.

In practical terms, this meant that if he didn’t do his part, we had to reschedule. (This may seem extreme, but it’s necessary for him to learn that relationships require effort on his part.)

As soon as he (finally) completed his requirements, we immediately scheduled a visit. We want him to see that he can trust us and that we’ll show up when he does. Today, we celebrated the ability to visit a second weekend IN A ROW. Swing up. 

This afternoon, just before we arrived, another child put his hands on our son’s neck. It was apparently horseplay (albeit inappropriate) on the other child’s part, with no ill intent. In months past, an incident like this would have ended with our son punching the kid in the face. Today, he simply left. He got up, went to his room and slammed the door to let everyone know he was angry.

In the grand scheme, that’s fabulous coping. Swing up. 

We had a family therapy session, discussed the situation and commended our boy for his great reaction.

The rest of the afternoon, we played Clue, Scrabble and Don’t Take My Words. (Full disclosure: we utilized several Hypervigilant Game Guidelines.)

He made the first Accusation in Clue, and I was proud because he didn’t get it rightand didn’t freak out. He helped set up and clean up each game. He offered us water. He was polite. He was kind to his sister. He hugged and kissed us each goodbye.

As we walked to the car, Hubby and I agreed he seemed better.

Swing up, up, up.

But what goes up…

A few hours after we left, he called, upset. He started crying. He said he was homesick. (I absolutely believe he is homesick, but my SuperMamaSenses started to tingle.) I asked whether he just felt homesick or was upset because something bad happened.

He said, “yes, something bad happened.” Swing down.

Then he told me about walking into a darkened room with a movie playing. Another specific child yelled at him, telling him to leave. This upset our son, so he began hitting and kicking the walls. He said he might have cracked the plaster, but the evening staff  told him he wouldn’t have to pay for it.

That last statement zinged my antennae further, because the admission contract is clear: if your kid breaks something, you pay. Big time. For the staff to say he wouldn’t have to pay…that was just weird.

I asked to speak with the staff member who’d been present.

Turns out, he made most of it up. By the time I found out, he was already in bed, so I’m sitting here trying to wrap my mind around why he might have thought it would be better to change the story. The end result in both stories was pretty much the same.

Actually, our son’s false story described a situation worse than what truly happened, because the staff member said he’s not aware our son cracked any of the walls.

In reality, our son was setting up a movie in the DVD player. There was no darkened room. The child who “yelled at” him wasn’t even present. A completely different child made a suggestion for getting the machine to work, at which time our son flipped out and started hitting and kicking the walls.

Why he would make those changes confuses me. If lies, why? If he somehow perceived reality to have happened that way, well…we’ve got a whole other can of worms to deal with.

The link breaks again.

The real issue is this: he has to learn to deal with peers’ interactions. Whether they’re giving him a suggestion, yelling at him or putting their hands on him, he’s got to be able to react in ways appropriate to the community.

I TOTALLY get that his emotions are raw and that didn’t help. I know he’s homesick. But I have to consider the future.

What if he’s at school feeling homesick?

Last year, he frequently wished to return home from school; he tried to find ways to be dismissed from school. He even caused minor harm to another child. Luckily, the child’s parents accepted his apology; at the time, there was a possibility the incident was accidental. Afterward, we confirmed his intent: he’d hoped the more extreme measure would end in suspension.

What if he does it again? What if he goes further than before?

What if a peer informs him she thinks his science project is crap? What if someone runs past and knocks him down? What if he’s having a bad day and someone suggests he should try a different method for figuring out a math problem? What if one of these things sets him off?

On one hand, I could make myself crazy trying to mitigate what-ifs.

On the other hand, the past predicts the present unless a catalyst induces change. 

The what-ifs above are likely to happen unless he corrects his course.

And if he gets upset, throws a chair and hits someone in the head—even if it’s a true accident—he’ll likely go to jail.

He has a great week. Swing up. 

He has a bad week. Swing down. 

He reacts appropriately to a bad situation. Swing up. 

He flips out. Swing down.

He lies. I’m sitting on the ground. Dust off, get back on the swing. 

We want him to come home.  Swing up. 

We want to protect him from himself.  Swing down. 

Sometimes, I want to hop off the swing and leave the playground altogether.

But he needs me.

So, I won’t.

And your kid needs you.

Let’s just keep swinging.

 

 

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Let’s All Go to the Movies

Movies move us.

Movies tell stories. Storytelling is a powerful way engage your audience, to provoke thought, to connect with others.

Movies often involve popcorn, soda and other treats.

Bottom line: movies are fun.

Other bottom line your kids don’t need to know: movies provide the opportunity to craft therapy experiences specific to your child. Often, the best therapy involves realizing others have similar battles to our own.

Let me give you an example of what I mean:

The last few years have been a struggle. I wonder if anyone else thinks the way I do, or if I’m just weird and everyone else is doing fine. Maybe I’m just different from everyone else on the planet, but when life throws a difficult experience in my lap, I feel alone. I feel that no one can understand. I feel different from everyone else on the planet. 

Oh, you’ve felt this?

Perhaps I’m not so different. Maybe you’re a kindred spirit. If you’ve experienced a similar difficulty and survived, so can I. We are connected. 

When we connect with other individuals—real or imagined—who experience similar hazards or painful crises, we no longer feel isolated. We find community. We find hope.

My aim for Hypervigilant.org is to provide a place where foster and adoptive parents (and their supporting cast members) will find hope, healing and the knowledge that not one of us is alone in the fight to help our children survive and thrive.

As parents, we must find ways to help our children reach hope, healing and community as well—and the best place to start is at home.

Sometimes, this goal feels so far out of reach, it might as well be in outer space. When RAD is in full swing, when kids have screaming tantrums, when your child is continually defiant, when they’ve broken every possible object, when you’re ready to pull your hair out…it’s time to pull out a secret weapon.

FAMILY MOVIE NIGHT!

Break out that popcorn machine (or toss a pack in the microwave). Pour special drinks for the kids (and possibly “extra-special” drinks for the adults). As long as candy doesn’t send them over the edge, buy a couple boxes of “movie candy” at CVS.

Get the kids excited. (But not too excited…we’re looking for positive participation, not chaos…)

And then, play a movie with a theme aimed at their hearts.

While watching, point out key elements.

“Wow, I bet that made him angry.”

“Do you think she’s feeling sad, or just confused?”

“I think maybe he reacted that way because he misses his dog.”

After the movie, spend a few minutes getting the kids involved in conversation. Remember, this is not a full-on therapy session. No need to extend it unless your kiddos become invested in the process.

*Key component: if it’s after bedtime, inform the kids they may stay up “__ minutes more” as long as they’re contributing to the discussion in an active and positive way.

Ask what they thought the character felt during ______ scene. How could the character have reacted differently (either positive or negative) and in what way might that change the story?

Often, asking, “can you think of anyone who might have similar feelings/could have had a similar experience/may understand a character in the movie?” works better than a direct, “does this apply to you?”  The way your kids connect to the stories may surprise you; sometimes we think the kids will attach to a certain character, but they relate to another for other reasons.

It’s okay to watch the same movie more than once; investment in characters may change as kids develop. I experienced this myself, watching The Fault in Our Stars. I expected to  empathize with the young girl experiencing cancer, since I contend with chronic illness. Instead, the scenes involving her mother made me sob, thinking of how I’d feel if our girl were so sick.

Cinema Therapy, as it’s called in some circles, is gaining ground with professionals (although I doubt insurance providers will pay for movie tickets anytime soon). Especially for kids who have difficulty opening up because they feel no one understands, the right movies can bring healing. For families struggling to connect, Family Movie Night can facilitate finding common ground—even if it’s just a shared love of buttered popcorn.

 

Next up: Resources for Cinema Therapy at home

 

 

 

 

Monopoly on Happy

The problem is that you are putting in all the effort to see me and I’m not doing any effort to show you that I want you to visit.

This was my son’s explanation of the main problem in our family relationship during a phone call.

He continued, “when I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, I’m sending the message that I don’t care if you come to see me.”

The kid is smart. He knows what he’s doing.

In the beginning of his residential treatment stay, we visited our son every weekend. However, his behavior escalated and his actions became increasingly violent. We reduced the frequency of visits based on his behavior.

His therapist agreed he needed to have some responsibility in our family connection, unrelated to other behaviors. As part of his therapy, we created a behavior plan which required our son to do a chore and a lesson in a Bible devotional each day in order to earn a visit.

Because our main objective during that time was also to ensure his sister’s safety, deleting the visit was a negative consequence if he had a violent outburst during the week. Assuming he did not assault anyone, we would show up.

Our son agreed to the plan.

The therapist ensured the chore would take fewer than 5 minutes. The devotional page also required about 5 minutes. In order to fulfill his behavior plan, our son needed to put in only 10 minutes of effort each day.

We purposely kept his responsibility simple, to ensure that he would easily be able to attain success. We wanted to show him that when he did what he needed to do, he would get what he wanted.

As the therapist worked with him to prevent thoughts from becoming behaviors, he stopped assaulting other humans. Instead, he began beating on the walls, doors or windows when frustrated. Sometimes he threw or flipped chairs.

He made the mental connection that we were not visiting during times when he had been violent with another person and assumed that we would visit if he didn’t hit someone else.

By this time, though, the behavior plan was in place and he needed to complete those two simple actions in order to have a visit. Instead of complying with the plan, he became angry that we were not visiting even though he had not hit anyone. He refused to complete chores or the devotional.

For weeks, we encouraged him during nightly family calls—as well as during family sessions with the counselor—to complete his plan.

Eventually, he began doing the chores but still refused to do the devotional work. He said he didn’t see a point because he already knows who God is. No amount of reasoning worked.

It became a power struggle and I asked the counselor if we should simply give up, but he agreed that if we did so, our son would simply see us as liars, even though we would be breaking our word in a positive way.

The counselor and I began to wonder if he was simply convinced we wouldn’t visit and was making sure that he was in control of the situation.

I wanted to make sure that he knew we would visit, so the counselor and I came up with a compromise. If our son did not finish seven lessons by Thursday, I would do the rest of them on the phone with him so they would technically be completed.

We were able to get him to do three of the lessons on his own by Thursday. On our evening call, I told him to get the book and completed the last four lessons with him on the phone so that we could make a plan to visit him on Friday.

Last night, I saw my son for the first time in over a month. Waiting until he completed his behavioral plan may seem extreme, but we wanted him to grasp the necessity of putting effort into the relationship. We also wanted him to see that we would immediately reward that effort.

We want him to know that he can trust us to show up. We also need him to grasp that relationships take work.

Last night, we had the best visit we’ve had since his treatment began. He was thrilled to see us and knew that he had completed what was required of him in order to make it happen. He had done his part and we had done ours.

Interactions weren’t perfect, and he was still less than truthful when it came to owning up to behaviors during the week. However, I have never seen him so happy.

I believe he experienced the kind of joy you feel when you know you’ve been responsible and done your part.

We played a couple of card games and spent the rest of the time playing Monopoly. It was the first time we’d ever played the game as a family, mostly because I wasn’t sure he would react well to some aspects of the game.

He amazed me, interacting and trading and paying rent and going to jail without flipping out.

I had a foot-in-mouth moment the third time his sister went “straight to jail without collecting $200.”

“I never expected you to end up in jail a bunch of times; I always thought it would be your brother,” I grinned at her.

Then, horrified, I realized what I’d said and slapped a hand over my mouth.

He cut his eyes at me, then cracked up with a true belly laugh.

He patted my arm. “It’s ok, Mom. Don’t feel bad. That was pretty funny.”

For the first time since October, I think perhaps we are making headway.

I know it’s a long road ahead. Expecting things to be perfect (or even to consistently go well) would be ridiculous.

But for the first time in months, I believe we will be able to have game night in our own living room, together. Not tomorrow, but someday.

I have hope, because last night, for a few hours, we had a Monopoly on Happy.

10 Reasons to Write

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I’m a little behind on the assignments for Writing 101. I’ll explain why in a later post. For now, I’m just trying to catch up. Here’s my answer, in tribute to my hero—the man who first made me fall in love with rhythm and rhyme. Bonus points if you guess who.

Why I Write

I write because I love it.

I write to keep me sane.

I write when I feel happy

or sad or just mundane.

I write because Hubby says,

“if you neglect to do

writing every single day

your attitude is poo!”

I write because I love it.

I write because it’s free.

Writing’s a true essential;

costs less than therapy.

I write because I love it.

I write because it’s play.

Sometimes I write just to learn

what my thoughts have to say.

Ask me if I’ll ever stop—

the answer is, I won’t.

And I write because my head

will explode if I don’t.

***

I write because I love it.

Why do you write?


Photo credit: Casey Alexander

Adoption = The Odds

What are the odds of success for a child who was locked in a room the first few years of life?  A child so ignored, he knew ten words at age three? A child so neglected by both bio parents and foster parents that he didn’t know the alphabet at age five? A child who, in kindergarten, couldn’t recognize the word “the” on a page?

What are the odds of success for a child who was moved at least five different times because the adults in his life didn’t want to take the time to understand him, to hear beyond the angry screams, to see past the wild hyena behavior? A child who could not make it through a day in kindergarten or first grade without a one-on-one behavioral aide?

What are the odds of success for a child who was solely responsible for an infant at age two? A child locked in a room with her tiny brother? A child so malnourished her hair began falling out? A child left to her own devices in such a way that she still feels the weight of responsibility for not being able to feed herself and her brother?

What are the odds of success for a child who was unable to succeed in kindergarten because a foster family forced her to watch a toddler instead of learning? For a child who was so overlooked that no one, not even the social workers, fought for her to receive therapy or academic assistance?

At times, the odds seem to be never in our favor. There are many days, weeks and even months when we are exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, stressed, drained. Times when we weren’t sure we could do this. When we didn’t think we had it in us. When we were convinced this experiment of love would not end well.

Ah, but this week, we are momentarily triumphant.

This week, our daughter has been declared no longer in need of occupational therapy. She’s doing well in her mainstream classroom with minimal academic assistance. She is making more healthy choices.

This week, our son–who was reading on a kindergarten level in second grade–is finally reading on grade level. His eyes sparkled as he informed me that some of his spelling words are “fourth grade!” words. This afternoon, as we waited for his sister to finish her last OT appointment, he was the most well-behaved child in a room of many.

I’m not fooled into thinking we’re on easy street. (We’re only three years away from teenage angst…that will be fun…) I understand that there will be setbacks. I’ve not been lulled into a wondrous sense that this is the new normal.

But this week, we celebrate.

And borrowing a line from one of my favorite books, I say, on behalf of all foster and adoptive families,

May the odds be ever in your…well, you know.

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